Jackass Jack

Don't blame McKeon for the Marlins downfall? Who are you kidding?

I was sitting in a box seat at Pro Player Stadium, and it started coming out of me like a mantra.

"Pull him... pull him... pull him."

Then I said to a friend visiting from Florida's west coast, "What's wrong with that jackass? McKeon's got to pull Vargas."

It was August 31, heady times for the Florida Marlins. They had a half-game lead in the wild card race and were playing the best team in the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals. But the black-locked Jason Vargas, a solid young pitcher, was having problems. While the Marlins were being blanked, he gave up two runs in the third inning and another in the fourth. More trouble came in the fifth, when he gave up a leadoff single followed by an Albert Pujols triple.

That's it, I thought. It was time for Manager Jack McKeon to yank the kid, who'd already given up four runs and looked more than a bit peaked. Much more damage and the game's out of reach and the wild card lead goes away. You put in a new pitcher, you might catch lightning in a bottle and keep Pujols from scoring from third.

McKeon kept Vargas in the game. The next batter, Yadier Molina, stroked a sac fly to score the run, making it a 5-0 game. After a groundout, Vargas fell behind 0-2 on Scott Seabol, who singled the next sweet offering to left. All right, McKeon was going to pull him now, no question. The rookie didn't have anything. And the next batter was Hector Luna, who'd tripled off Vargas the previous inning.

Luna stepped up to the plate. Vargas stayed in the game.

I was pissed. When things go badly, it's usually indecent to get mad at the players, especially when their sweat is still drying on the ground. But when the overweight guy flapping his gums in the dugout ruins a game, you tend to get a little sore about spending that time and cash at the ballpark.

Anyway, Luna took a 2-0 gopher ball out of the park, making it six to nothing.

During an intense wild card race, you can't afford such idiotic mistakes. And McKeon, whom I've reflexively been calling "Jackass" ever since that game, made so many of them down the stretch that he personally destroyed any chance that the Marlins would make the playoffs.

That's right, I put it squarely on McKeon, the venerable baseball man who could do no wrong during the amazing 2003 World Series run. The same guy I really liked even after a less-than-stellar 2004 season. The same guy I didn't think should have been fired in July, when rumors were spreading that he was about to be booted from his underperforming team.

But then he really came undone in the heat of the wild card race. The once-endearing crustiness started sounding mean and petty. His constant cigar-smoking and gum-chewing suddenly seemed like a weird oral fetish. And his decisions, literally pitch perfect two years ago, began to trigger wicked flashbacks to Jeff Torberg, the IQ-wanting fellow he replaced.

You wouldn't know it reading the sports sections, though. The Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald apparently have a policy against criticizing the old man. Dave Hyde, the Sentinel columnist with an incredible aptitude for wrong-headedness, has been stuporously defending the skipper the past two weeks. So has the Herald's usually sensible Linda Robertson, who wrote that McKeon has more "baseball knowledge in his pinkie nail than any of us amateurs do in our cerebrums."

That's fine. Everything that went wrong can't be pinned on the outgoing manager -- who was politely dispatched over the weekend and will continue as adviser to owner Jeffrey Loria -- certainly not Mike Lowell's power outage. Or Juan Pierre's slump. You certainly can't load all the dismal play of the bullpen or the injuries on Jack's back either. It wouldn't be fair.

But it's still McKeon's fault, if only because his asinine decisions didn't give the team a fair chance to win.

In proving this, I'm not even going to get into pitcher A.J. Burnett's crying jag last week, during which he criticized the manager for coaching "scared" and creating a negative atmosphere. Or mention that Al Leiter basically had the same complaint after his brief and baleful return to the Fish earlier this season. And I'm not going to ask how a team stacked with so much talent, a team statistically better than both the Astros and the Phillies, so "massively underachieved," as ESPN analyst Jeff Brantley put it.

No, I'm restricting the evidence to McKeon moves that are undeniably dunderheaded. Idiotic. Infuriating. Here's a sampling of three of them that occurred in the wild card race during the all-important month of September:

September 4: Shortstop Alex Gonzalez had an elbow injury that turned his arm into jelly. He couldn't throw. Not only did keeping Gonzo on the field hurt the team but it could have inflamed the injury. But McKeon didn't sit the shortstop, even though he had a perfectly good backup in Damion Easley. Instead, he let the hurting Gonzalez, whom Jack called a "gamer," play against the Mets for a nationally televised Sunday game at Pro Player. With two outs in the third inning and the Marlins down 2-0, Jackass and the Marlins were bitten by this bad decision. The Mets' Carlos Beltran hit a routine grounder to short. Gonzalez scooped it up, but his throw was so weak that Jackass himself probably could have thrown it better. Beltran was safe, and the inning continued for a beleaguered Burnett. The next batter was Cliff Floyd, who belted a laser over the centerfield wall. Unbelievably, McKeon left Gonzalez in the game to commit a throwing error in the next inning that forced Burnett to pitch out of another unnecessary jam (starting to see why A.J. was a little rankled?). The Mets went on to win the game 7-1, keeping the Marlins a half game back.

September 17: In what turned out to be the pivotal game of the season, the Marlins were facing Philadelphia at Pro Player. On the mound was the true class of the team, Dontrelle Willis, who threw eight innings of sheer shutout beauty. With a thin 2-0 lead over the dangerous Phillies, McKeon had a decision to make in the ninth: push his luck with Willis, who'd already thrown 110 pitches on a blazing hot day, or bring in Todd Jones, the Marlins' lights-out closer. He stuck with Willis, which was understandable, at least to give him a shot. But Willis immediately gave up a hard-hit single to Jimmy Rollins. Then he gave up his first walk of the game. The D-Train was out of coal. Unforgivably, Jackass left the star pitcher in to face Bobby Abreu, one of the most feared hitters in baseball. Abreu promptly cracked a hard grounder to the left of second-baseman Luis Castillo, who couldn't handle it. Error by Castillo, but it was a tough play. That halved the lead to 2-1 and left men on the corners with no outs. Jones, left with a near-impossible task, couldn't save the Marlins. Then the entire team disintegrated before our eyes, giving up ten ugly runs before it was over.

September 21: Despite the meltdown and a subsequent extra-innings loss to the Mets, the Marlins still had a slim chance. They were three games back of Houston with 11 to play. They needed to start by beating the so-so Mets in Shea Stadium. Down 3-2 in the eighth, the Marlins got two scrappy runs to take a 4-3 lead. McKeon had a simple mission: Get the team through the eighth to get the ball to Jones. So who did Jackass put in as the set-up man? I couldn't believe my eyes. It was... Ron Villone. This was the same man who'd racked up an 8.15 ERA with the Marlins after less than two months with the team. Just four days before, in the meltdown game, he'd been bombed by the Phillies. Three days before that, he'd been responsible for two runs in the seventh during a close game against Houston (ensuring another loss for Burnett). Prior to that, Villone was a general disaster. This would be no different. Villone walked Beltran on five pitches and then gave up a single to Floyd. The table was set for disaster. Jackass handed the ball to Antonio Alfonseca, who had to deal with men on the corners with no outs. He gave a strong effort but couldn't keep Beltran from scoring. New York won 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth.

And that, good fan, would be the season's final crushing loss (all the rest were anticlimactic). Through it all, McKeon retained the attitude of a horse-like creature's hind end. The Herald's Robertson, in her defense of McKeon last week, wrote of a TV reporter's questioning McKeon about not pulling Willis sooner during that devastating Phillies game. "The next time your insights are better than mine, I would really appreciate a call in the dugout," McKeon snapped at the reporter before badgering him for the next ten minutes.

Robertson didn't see anything wrong with that kind of behavior, apparently because of that brilliant fingernail. Unfortunately, Jack has been making his decisions with another part of the body, a place that never sees the light of day or the beauty of reason. He gave fans an unforgettable gift two years ago. Now, as he heads off to pasture, he's giving us another one: watching him say goodbye to South Florida.

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